Action, blood, gore, swordplay, dark faeries that eat human flesh - if you love reading fantasy with plenty of fighting and biting, sardonic wit, then I Know Not by award-winning author James Daniel Ross will be right up your alley. I Know Not is narrated by an assassin who has lost his memory due to a head injury he suffered in battle. He doesn’t know this at the beginning of the novel, though; it is only gradually that Fox Crow’s memories start to come back.
I’d read some of Ross’ MilSF short stories in the excellent “Defending the Future” anthologies, and I’ve heard that his book Radiation Angels is great, but I hadn’t read any of his novels until this one. I Know Not is a journey of self-discovery. When the narrator wakes up in a battlefield, surrounded by corpses of those both attacking and defending a castle, he has no idea who he is, nor which side he fought on in the battle. All he knows is that he is in intense pain, his head is swollen and spongy-feeling, he’s wounded in other places, and if he doesn’t get help soon, he’ll likely die.
He manages to crawl up the stairs into the castle and drink some wine he finds on a table, swallowing flies at the same time. The inside of the castle presents much the same view as the outside: dead bodies everywhere. The attackers were from the North and ransacked the place, leaving just scraps, like the stale food on the table. After he sleeps and eats a little, the narrator feels somewhat better but knows he has to get to a healer or he still might die from his wounds. He exchanges his armor and clothes for those of a dead men. After liberating a small sack of silver coins from the body of a guard, he sets out on his own to try to find help.
He occasionally suffers terrifying visions of a bony man with short, stubbly hair. When he stops at a naturally occurring hot spring to take a bath and relax before moving on, that man appears before him, offering him a wooden statue of a raven in his right hand, and a gold and ruby sculpture of “a lidless eye” in his left hand. He reaches to grab the one of the lidless eye, and then he awakes. Was it all only a dream, or does the vision hold great importance to him?
Though not even close to being completely healed, when the narrator hears a scuffle going on, he comes to the aid of a royal carriage under attack by ten armed thieves. Knowing that he will have no chance if he jumps out and warns them, he comes from behind and kills the man furthest back, then the next one, before the others realize he’s even there. When they turn to fight him, the guards protecting the carriage attack the thieves from behind, and the tide suddenly turns.
The princess aboard the carriage is accompanied by a healer who tends to the narrator’s wounds despite feeling hatred toward him and being suspicious of his intentions. Still, the healer tells the princess that the narrator will likely die from his wounds, especially as the last thief the narrator faces stabs him in the gut. This generally results in a very painful, gruesome death as the acid and stomach contents surround the other vital organs. The princess’s father had given her a healing potion to use in case she would ever suffer grievous injuries, and she uses it on the narrator. He is miraculously healed and continues traveling with her, at least temporarily, and takes part in many more battles.
There are many graphic descriptions of death and the ways people are killed in battle, and colorful verbiage about spilled entrails and how people involuntarily defecate more often than not when they die. The narrator comes up with the possible explanation that corpses void their bowels to make them less palatable to any animal that may have killed them, or as an insult to whomever has slaughtered them. This novel could perhaps best be described as a dark fantasy, because of the violent battle scenes and carnage depicted in it.
I Know Not should appeal to anyone who loves reading dark fantasy. It’s not for the faint of heart or stomach, but it is an action-packed read that the most jaded fans of sword and sorcery will enjoy.